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Writing in the Disciplines

At the University of Tennessee, many courses include writing as a central component. While many academic papers may share similar goals, however, each discipline has unique expectations and requirements for successful writing.  For example, writing for a Philosophy course can be very different than writing for English, and writing for a science class can be completely different than writing for a humanities class.

First-year composition classes cannot teach students the specific expectations for every discipline—those lessons are best learned while taking classes and completing writing assignments in the many different subject areas in which students take classes.

This guide aims to direct you to reputable resources that will help you to write in specific subjects rather than in particular courses, since writing expectations often vary according to the learning outcomes of specific courses. Always follow your instructor’s guidelines first!

We’ve organized the resources alphabetically by college and then by department to make searching easier.

For help getting started on your writing project, check out our “Getting Started” page.

College of Arts & Sciences
Biology
Chemistry
Mathematics
Music
Philosophy
Political Science
Psychology
Sociology
Theatre
College of Communication & Information
Advertising & Public Relations
Communication Studies

Haslam College of Business

Tickle College of Engineering

 

Writing for courses in the College of Arts & Sciences

 

Biology

Writing in Biology often relies on the “logical communication” of information, from clear sentences to consistent organization. Monshaw University’s guide, made for undergraduates writing in the Biological Sciences, goes into more detail about how to organize your paper, assess your sources, avoid plagiarism, and more.

Writers in Biology need to write precisely and objectively. UNC Chapel-Hill’s guide helps students write more clearly in the sciences; for example, you should quantify information when possible, choose words and phrases carefully, and avoid figurative language.

Writing in Biology can include a few different kinds of writing, like laboratory reports and notes as well as research proposals, research manuscripts, reviews or critiques of primary literature, and more. Southwestern’s guide describes these types of writing and provides tips on using proper conventions, avoiding common pitfalls, and using evidence from different sources. For example, when it comes to using evidence, writers in Biology may cite primary sources, secondary sources, mainstream sources, and/or data.

The lab report is a common type of writing in Biology. A lot of the details for what a Biology lab report should look like and include will depend on the class it’s written in. Typically, though, there are five sections: the Abstract, Introduction, Materials/Methods, Results, and Discussion/Conclusions sections (but don’t forget your references page!). Richmond University’s guide goes into more detail on each section and includes sample writing of what each section may look like.

When writing a lab report in Biology, you should also try to avoid common mistakes and pitfalls, like being too vague in your introduction or too speculative in your conclusions. The University of Connecticut’s Writing Center offers a guide to navigating the lab report, including examples of common mistakes and corrections for each section.
         

Chemistry

Writing in Chemistry relies on the scientific method. Rather than just explain what happened, this type of writing tries to explain the process behind what happened. Southwestern’s guide describes Chemistry research papers as a “chemical story” that writers tell their readers and offers writers tips on conventions, formatting, and common mistakes.

To tell this story, research papers in Chemistry have four main parts: Introduction, Experimental Procedures, Results/Discussion, and Conclusion. (References and appendices are often included, too, so don’t forget to check with your instructor!) Minnesota State’s guide also provides “correct” and “incorrect” examples of chemical names, abbreviations, formulas, equations, and even sentence structure.

Writing a lab report in Chemistry is very similar to writing a research paper in Chemistry, though your instructor may add questions for you to answer after the four main sections of the report. The Richmond University Writing Center’s guide explains these sections more and defines some common terms when writing in Chemistry.

It can help writers to see examples of lab reports before they start writing their own. Richmond University’s guide also offers not only sample Chemistry lab reports, including some from an upper-division Inorganic Chemistry course, but also compares them to Biology lab reports to highlight the big differences between them.

         

Mathematics

Mathematics values writing that “demonstrate[s] the flow of logic, evidence, and justification” for the model, calculation, proof, etc. that’s being examined. In fact, a mathematician may have to do all kinds of writing, from developing proofs, drafts for oral presentations, or posters, all the way to writing abstracts and papers. A longer Mathematics paper usually has sections for an introduction, the primary model, a critique of that model, an exploration of future work, and then references. Southwestern’s guide explains this and also notes that writers need to clearly outline and back up their evidence, focusing more on the ‘how’ than the ‘what’ of the computation discussed.

There’s more writing in Mathematics than most people expect, and Cornell University outlines a helpful writing checklist for writing a paper in Mathematics (particularly Calculus). The guide includes tips for clearly and separately stating the problem to be solved, the answer applied to the problem, and the assumptions underlying both. The guide even gives concrete examples of well- and poorly-described variables and key phrases that writers can model in their own Mathematics papers.

         

Music 

Writing in Music can involve several types of assignments, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center talks about approaches for argumentative papers, concert reports, historical analyses, song analyses, and performance or media comparisons. They also give tips for describing music, using music terminology (and terms to avoid), and making arguments about music.

Writers in Music should be careful to avoid common pitfalls, like projecting emotional content, mixing or misusing terminology, or using the wrong tense. Richmond University’s Writing Center provides a sample student essay with extensive instructor commentary. They interviewed two professors of Music about common student mistakes and advice for successful writing in Music.

When writing technical descriptions of music, explain why the details you’ve described are important — try to avoid giving a “‘blow-by-blow’ analysis.” Duke University’s Writing Studio explains more “actions” for writing in Music, including tips like providing the relevant sections of the score in your examples, supporting your evaluations with evidence from the music, and always explaining your examples.

         

Philosophy

Writing in Philosophy values logical reasoning — in other words, Philosophy is interested in how you argue. Jim Pryor, an NYU professor, explains that arguments in Philosophy aim to “offer good reasons in support of [a] conclusion.” In a Philosophy argument, if your audience accepts the premises you’ve given, then reasonably they must also accept your conclusion.

Writing in Philosophy can include several types of writing tasks, like original arguments, argument reconstruction, objections and replies, and/or thought experiments. As the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center points out, each type of writing has a different goal to achieve and so needs a different approach from the writer. For example, an objection to an argument must give reasons for why the argument or its reasoning is flawed: maybe the premises don’t really support the claims, or the argument doesn’t use its terms consistently, or the conclusion relies on unspoken assumptions; etc.

When building arguments in Philosophy, writers need to be careful to avoid logical fallacies, which create flaws in an argument and weaken its reasoning. Checking your paper for fallacies can be tricky, and UNC-Chapel Hill provides some tips on finding them in your own arguments, such as reverse-outlining your claims and evidence.

Remember, also, that writing in Philosophy often uses specialized terminology with meanings that are specific to Philosophy itself. When defining these terms in an argument — like ‘vague,’ ‘logical,’ or ‘truth’ — writers should not use a standard dictionary. For philosophical terms, look up Philosophy reference materials or even Pryor’s “Philosophical Glossary for Beginners” for a head-start.

Writing in Philosophy should be clear and straightforward so that a reader does not misinterpret the argument. So, writers should use plain prose and a clear structure. To help your reader follow your argument, try to ‘signal’ to them what you’re doing (for example, “As I have just explained” or “Smith’s next premise that…”). Harvard College’s guide describes more general dos and don’ts of writing a Philosophy paper, including examples of “good” and “poor” student writing.
         

Political Science

Political scientist Harold Laswell says politics is basically the struggle of “who gets what, when, how.” The UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center’s guide to writing about Political Science adds that “political scientists study such struggles, both small and large, in an effort to develop general principles or theories about the way the world of politics works.” Political Science explores relationships among and within governments, societies, and individuals, both domestically and internationally.
          On the other hand, political theory deals more with “historical and normative” analysis than it does empirical analysis. Basically, while most political science uses the scientific method to analyze politics and assess “how things are,” political theory investigates how these political ideas developed and debates how things “should be.”
          Political Science values objective reasoning, clear and logically presented arguments, thoughtful consideration of opposing arguments, and thorough evaluation of relevant, empirical evidence for and against your main claim. The UNC-Chapel Hill guide also includes a brief description of each component of a typical political science research paper: an introduction, a problem statement, a discussion of methodology, a literature review, a description and evaluation of your research findings, and a summary of your own findings.

Like all scientists, political scientists employ the scientific method to objectively analyze and deduce truths and build theories about the world we live in. Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program provides a thorough explanation of how this process works, as well as a step-by-step description of the research methodology political scientists generally follow. Writing in Political Science may include argument essays; responses to articles, texts, or events; research papers; and op-eds. Duke’s guide also explains that for any of these assignments, writers should develop a narrow topic, an arguable thesis, supporting evidence, and a few reasonable counterarguments.

         

Psychology

Psychology has a lot of different subfields and different kinds of writing tasks or goals. What’s considered “good” writing may change for these subfields and/or kinds of writing, but Psychology usually aims to study “behavior as well as the factors/mechanisms/properties that support behavior.” Miami University’s Howe Center for Writing Excellence offers a guide that explains more about these writing goals, plus how to use the scientific method, build credibility, navigate different subfields, etc. when writing in Psychology.

Because of the differences among subfields, audience, purpose, and context are very important when writing in Psychology. Purdue’s OWL offers tips for how to approach these elements and also breaks down how to format, use tables, and write lab reports in Psychology.

Writing in Psychology relies on and values evidence. Harvard’s booklet provides valuable tips for reading, writing, and handling evidence in Psychology, including a list of “dos” and “don’ts” and a step-by-step guide for writing in Psychology.

There are a lot of different kinds of writing in Psychology, like reaction papers or research papers. UNC Chapel-Hill’s guide gives tips for writing such papers, plus advice for improving clarity. For example, research studies typically have four distinct sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.

A common type of research paper in Psychology is the lab report. A professor at Richmond University explains that the Introduction and Discussion are the hardest sections to write in a lab report. Richmond University’s Writing Center breaks these sections down even more finely in their own guide and provides a sample student’s lab report with the instructor’s comments.

         

Sociology 

Sociology courses also often give different types of writing assignments, including critical reviews, applying or testing a theory/concept, and research papers. Typically, though, writing in Sociology focuses on three main elements: the thesis, evidence, and unit of analysis. On top of describing each type of writing and its purpose, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center breaks the above three elements down accordingly: 1) the thesis must be straightforward and it must not assume its own conclusion; 2) the evidence must be empirical, gathered from qualitative and/or quantitative methods; and 3) the unit of analysis (or perspective) must be clear and consistent.

In particular, the thesis should be debatable and narrow — in other words, the thesis must have a reasonable counterargument and be supported by the evidence analyzed in the paper. There are two types of theses in this field: an analytic thesis (a claim about “what is”) and a normative thesis (a claim about “what should be”). UC Berkeley’s guide explains more about what these theses might look like in a sociology paper. They also define “good writing” as writing that includes a clear thesis, carefully-selected evidence, thorough analysis, and logical organization. Their guide includes student samples of “good” and “poor” writing in Sociology, as well as examples of wordy and concise sentences, active and passive voice, and passages before and after revisions.
          For many types of writing in Sociology, writers must read and integrate outside sources, and UC Berkeley’s guide includes suggestions for reading and understanding college-level writing, as well as providing note-taking strategies to avoid plagiarism.

You may be assigned an essay exam in Sociology. Some general advice is offered on our web page, and some essay exam advice with examples from a Sociology course is offered on Rice University’s web page.

         

Theatre 

Writing about theatre or drama includes writing about plays, productions, and performances. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center explains that “writing about drama often means explaining what makes the plays we watch or read so exciting.” They provide a handout for writing about drama, including mini-guides to what elements to consider and analyze when writing specifically about a play, a performance, or a production. For example, when writing about a performance, you probably will be asked to analyze individual acting performances (including mistakes or ‘flubs’) and audience reactions.

The University of Wisconsin’s Writing Center offers information about writing a review of a production, including detailed, step-by-step instructions. It notes that writing play reviews means writers have to fill two roles — “both a spectator taking in and enjoying the performance and critical analyst of the production itself.” In general, provide the following information: a very brief summary of the play, a close objective analysis of the performance you attend, and an interpretation and evaluation of the entire ensemble of staging, acting, and directing.

For a brief overview of some general principles for writing about theatre, refer to the University of Richmond’s Guidelines for Writing Critiques for Theatre Performances. (Many of the principles are also true of writing about the humanities in general). Their first tip involves “close reading” a play’s written or performed format: “One must ‘read’ a performance closely by understanding its content, the historical, social, and cultural background of the performance, as well as by analyzing the components of the performance.”

Typically, you should format and organize a theatre paper in the same way you would format a paper for your humanities classes, including English 101 and 102. Here are some general guidelines — but always follow your instructor’s guidelines first!

  • Begin with an introduction paragraph that includes your thesis. A good thesis for a theater paper will be an argument or central claim about some aspect of the play, production, or performance (such as the ones discussed above) that is specific, bold, and, most importantly, supportable by the evidence you will present in the body paragraphs of the paper.
  • Evidence includes both primary sources (the play or production itself as well as analysis based on your own interpretation) and secondary sources such as scholarly publications you may consult. Keep in mind you may also want to include relevant theoretical concepts and technical terminology that you have discussed in class or read about in assigned scholarly publications.
  • End with a conclusion paragraph that reiterates the main points of the paper and gestures beyond its scope to the larger significance of what you have accomplished.
  • Citations should be in MLA format (unless otherwise indicated by your instructor), guidelines for which can be found in your Writer’s Harbrace Handbook and at the Purdue OWL.

         

Writing for Courses in the College of Communication

 

Advertising and Public Relations 

Writing in Public Relations involves a lot of different types of writing — such as memoranda, speeches, newsletters, brochures, fact sheets, pitch letters, and news or press releases — each with a specific format or structure that writers must follow. Writing a memorandum, for example, means following a standard organization of heading, opening, task, discussion, and closing segments. Purdue’s OWL goes over what each segment of a memo needs and even provides a sample memo and formatting tips.

Another common type of writing in Public Relations is a press release. While it’s also called a media release, news release, or press statement, a press release promotes or explains new information from a company, organization, etc. to the public. This information could be announcing the launch of a new product or promotion, the recall of a faulty product, a company merger or acquisition, or even the search for plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit.
          Press releases are typically sent out to only a few editors or journalists who specialise in the relevant industry. The press release, then, has to account for two audiences: the public readers you’re trying to inform and the editors who decide whether or not to publish your release. Purdue’s OWL has more information on how to write for both of these audiences, such as tips for answering the “5 W and H Questions” (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How), considering the limitations of your chosen medium (radio announcements, black-and-white print, TV broadcasting, static webpage, etc.), and formatting the document (title, presentation, concision, etc.).

Also, a press release should more or less stand on its own. A reader should not require any additional context to understand the importance of the announcement, why the press release quotes those spokespersons, and what the originating company or organization does. Hannah Fleishman, the Recruiting Manager at HubSpot, breaks down real examples of press releases into five essential components, so that writers of press releases can better piece together the necessary elements into a single, effective document: 1) the Eye-Catching Headline; 2) the ‘So-What?’ Question; 3) the Memorable Quote; 4) the Bare-Bones Background, and 5) the ‘About Us’ Brief.

 

Communication Studies

Most writing in Communication Studies aims “to explain how and why people interact in the ways that they do.” In these explanations, writers should always introduce and explain every piece of evidence in the paper. Introducing and explaining your evidence shows your reader why you chose that particular piece of evidence and how exactly it works to support your overall argument. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center says that how a writer studies these interactions is shaped by the analysis’s method or perspective, which in turn often fit in one of four categories of study: Interpersonal or Organizational Communication, Rhetoric, Performance Studies, and Media/Film Studies.

Southwestern University’s guide to writing in Communications includes a brief summary of what you might expect from the various types of writing found in Communications Studies, such as critical analysis papers, literature reviews, critical reflections, and more. A course may even ask you to develop a type of ‘communication’ (like a speech or a website) to show that you understand the processes involved in making it.

         

Writing for courses in the Haslam College of Business

Writing in Business relies on analyzing the rhetorical situation: the writer develops a text for a specific audience and for a specific purpose, all within a specific context. (If you’ve taken English 101 here at UT Knoxville, then this model likely sounds familiar to you.) Writers must identify the needs and expectations of their audience before they can determine how best to achieve their purpose with that audience. The Howe Center for Writing Excellence has a guide for brainstorming not only the content but also the style of your text. For example, let’s say you need to update a knowledgeable but busy colleague: you should probably send them a short email, with a clear subject line and front-loaded message, instead of a long, detailed progress report.
          Generally, writing in Business values concise and efficient communication: writers should use headings and subject lines strategically and focus on “what your audience has asked you to supply.” Howe’s guide also explains that, basically, you should provide our audience with “need to know” information up front and avoid “nice to know” information altogether.

Courses in Business may ask students to write to a specific audience such as a client, a subordinate, a manager, a colleague, etc. Each audience requires and expects a different approach. Let’s look back at the example of the update to a busy colleague: if the audience were instead a new client, then the writer should establish their credibility first and then provide more context for their update. The University of Richmond’s Writing Studio has more tips on writing to a specific audience.

Writing in Business also includes several types of writing, like memos, reports, emails, cover letters, application letters, etc. Some of these genres may sound familiar, but it’s important to note that Business writing may use different conventions for them than you might expect. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill points out that while many think of cover letters and application letters as “essentially the same,” writing in Business separates them into different documents: cover letters act as a record, identifying what item is sent to whom and for what reason, while application letters are persuasive sales pitches, selling yourself and/or your skills to your audience.

Furthermore, depending upon the purpose of the writing, writers in Business may also engage in positive writing, negative writing, or persuasive writing. The University of Richmond Writing Center‘s guide explains that, for each type, the writer must consider how their audience will receive the message. As you might expect, positive writing (or “good news” writing) is most likely to be well-received by the audience, while negative writing (“bad news” writing) is more likely to be met with an unresponsive or even hostile audience. Meanwhile, persuasive writing seeks to convince the audience to act in a desired way.

Positive, negative, and persuasive writing all require different approaches to accomplish their purpose with the audience. The Purdue OWL goes into detail about how to emphasize a positive message and embed a negative message to help make your writing more effective with your audience.

For more specific guidelines, follow the Howe Center for Writing Excellence’s 6 Cs of Business Communication:

  1. Consideration: be mindful of your audience’s needs and expectations.
  2. Clarity: use simple language and provide only “need to know” information.
  3. Conciseness: be brief and direct in both word choice and message.
  4. Coherence: group ideas and sections logically with clear headings and transitions.
  5. Correctness: use correct information and proper conventions (formatting & mechanics).
  6. Confidence: meet deadlines and be professional, largely by using the above Cs.

Remember, though, that writers in Business must always consider their audience and their purpose. While clear, concise communication is key in Business writing, striking the right tone may mean going against those ‘rules’ of concision. Like the Purdue OWL says, the simplest sentence is not necessarily the best one for your situation: a blunt, concise sentence may communicate your message quickly, but your reader might see it as rude and your message won’t achieve its purpose.

         

Writing for Courses in the Tickle College of Engineering 

Writing in Engineering often includes writing reports for specific audiences. For example, Engineering technical or lab reports present information, often to clients, about experiments, simulations, or designs. Before beginning a design report, Michigan State University’s guide encourages writers to do background research, like interviewing the client, reviewing relevant literature, and investigating industry standards.
          Meanwhile, Engineering design reports are typically organized into three sections: front matter, report text, and appendices. Writers should develop a problem statement and objectives as well as a plan for project management. MSU’s guide also encourages writers to be detailed in their project management plan, so that they can use that plan when outlining their design report.
          If you use tables or figures in your reports, remember to label each appropriately: figures can include schematics, illustrations, charts or graphs, etc., while tables include data compilations or computations. Tables and figures require specific formatting, and MSU’s guide walks writers through those details. For example, a table or figure needs a title so descriptive that a reader can understand its data even if they don’t read the attached report. The guide also includes tips and examples for technical writing in general, including staying consistent, maintaining flow, using appropriate language, and editing for grammar.

 

 


We will continue to update this page with advice for writing in additional disciplines. If you have suggestions for resources to add, please contact us at writingcenter@utk.edu.